GREEN BAY – A young linebacker in the NFL is accustomed to having his physical attributes tested – his size, his strength, his speed, his tackling skills.
So which of those did Packers inside linebacker Oren Burks focus on most in preparation for his second season? Apparently, none of them.
“Definitely my eyes,” Burks said.
“I wanted to focus on my eyes and be able to process things a lot faster,” he said.
In essence, Burks was explaining that his eyes are the key to maximizing on the rest of his physical traits. If he’s looking where he’s supposed to, pre-snap and post-snap, he can react more quickly, which means his 4.59 speed will get him where he needs to go, and if he’s in the right place at the right time, his 6-3, 233-pound frame can take care of the rest.
It’s a roundabout way of saying he must see the play to make the play, and to see the play in time to make it – to anticipate it – he has to be looking across the line of scrimmage in the right place.
That’s really the whole key to Burks becoming the player the Packers drafted him to be, when they traded up to select him in the third round out of Vanderbilt in 2018. Throughout the spring, he took the majority of the snaps next to Blake Martinez when the first-team defense had two inside linebackers on the field.
New position coach Kirk Olivadotti placed a big emphasis on his players’ eyes when he first arrived, Burks said. With new Head Coach Matt LaFleur’s offense employing a lot of shifts, motions and play-fakes, it’s easy for linebackers to get distracted. That’s the whole point of the window dressing to certain plays – getting defenders to miss their true keys.
OTAs and minicamp against quarterback Aaron Rodgers and LaFleur’s offense were valuable training for Olivadotti to keep his linebackers disciplined, and as the leader of the inside linebackers, Martinez is an important resource as Burks looks to take a step forward.
“He’s been the commander of the defense for the last couple years here,” Burks said. “(The emphasis on the eyes) just simplifies the game for you, knowing what reads to look for, and you’re able to play a lot faster.”
Martinez noted he’s seen as much improvement out of Burks as anyone on the defense this offseason and believes come training camp “he’ll show up.”
The Packers practiced inside the Don Hutson Center on Wednesday for Day 2 of mandatory minicamp.
Burks would have preferred to reach this point sooner, but a shoulder injury last August cost him the final two preseason games, the first two games of the regular season, and an immeasurable amount of developmental time.
When he returned, the team was in weekly game-plan mode and there was just one practice in pads per week (if that). He did what he could in limited opportunities on defense and made the most of his snaps on special teams, ranking second on the team with 10 coverage tackles.
“It was definitely a hiccup, and I wasn’t expecting to get injured, but nobody does,” Burks said of the rookie-year setback. “It’s a form of adversity and you have to be able to bounce back. I struggled a little bit throughout the year, but this offseason was just focused on getting better every day, coming back fresh and ready to go. The confidence is there so I just have to keep building on that.”
He’s also built a quick rapport with Olivadotti, whom he remembered from a scouting combine interview when the veteran coach was with Washington. Competition at inside linebacker is building with former undrafted free agent James Crawford putting together a strong spring, TCU’s Ty Summers getting drafted in the seventh round, and practice-squad holdover Brady Sheldon making an impression as well.
Thus far, Burks appears to be grabbing hold of the job he planned to seize last year before the shoulder injury hit, but taking everything he learned this spring and applying it in the summer will solidify his place in coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense.
“He’s done a very good job with trying to be efficient with his feet, efficient with his angles, and putting his eyes in the right spot,” Olivadotti said. “Because when he does that, he can move around and be a pretty good player.”
See the play, make the play.
“I just want to add value to the team wherever I can – defense, special teams – and just make every play count,” Burks said. “There’s a certain standard I hold myself to and I didn’t meet those expectations last year. So I’m just looking forward to being the best version of myself.”